Not the please pee in the cup kind…via RedSox.com -
As Theo Epstein returned home for his annual winter charity event, he did so at a time when he’s trying to build the Chicago Cubs into a perennial contender and his former employers — the Boston Red Sox — are trying to regain their prominence.
The difference between success and failure in baseball can seem as fine as a piece of dirt that gets stuck under a players’ spike.
It doesn’t always come down to stats or ability. On many occasions, it comes down to atmosphere and culture.
In other words, the topic of Epstein’s Hot Stove/Cool Music roundtable on Friday night was certainly timely. This forum was about changing the culture of a baseball team, particularly in the clubhouse.
This was a night Epstein could reflect on why that worked so well for the Red Sox from 2003-07, and how it was perhaps the undoing of the team in his final year in Boston (2011).
It was a chance for current Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington to talk about why repairing the clubhouse was a major part of his reconstruction this winter.
The other panel members included Boston manager John Farrell, Orioles skipper Buck Showalter and Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen. They all had telling anecdotes about how personalities can sometimes impact a team as much as a game-winning home run or a key strikeout with the bases loaded and two outs.
It might not be as tangible — but it’s there.
“When you’re trying to define what clubhouse culture is, it’s really difficult to do, but it’s really how 25 men come together for a common cause and hopefully if it’s done right, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts and I think we saw that here for a long time,” Epstein said. “There are different ingredients that are important. I think the manager sets an important tone. The character of the players you select to be in the clubhouse is an important tone. The veteran leadership is fundamental to it.
“We saw the other side of it — towards the end. Where, just as when things come together in just the right mix, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, you can have the opposite effect when some of those ingredients aren’t in play.
“There probably wasn’t a month in baseball history that underscored the importance of it more than that [September 2011], unfortunately on the negative side. We probably had a month in October of 2004 which underscored how great it can be when things come together with the right mix.”
When Epstein took over Boston’s front office prior to the 2003 season, he had a team burdened by recent failures, and the inability to win a World Series for more than eight decades. Boston, with its media and ravenous fan base, can be a tough place to play. The Red Sox at that time needed to lighten the mood.
“Back in Boston, in 2002, heading into 2003, we realized we had to change the mood, the atmosphere, the culture, and we brought in guys like David Ortiz and Kevin Millar to have a very specific set of characteristics that might impact the way a clubhouse dynamic worked,” Epstein said. “Ultimately we hired Terry Francona to do the same.”
Cherington, in his former capacity as assistant general manager under Epstein, watched some of that camaraderie erode slowly over time. Sometimes you don’t realize until it’s too late.
“I don’t think it happens overnight,” Cherington said of chemistry. “It can also go the other way, and it doesn’t go the other way overnight. You start maybe taking some things for granted, you start taking shortcuts in certain areas and all of a sudden you aren’t doing the things you were doing when you were really good. The key is recognizing it, and hopefully recognizing it before it gets to that point so it isn’t an issue. I think you have to have talent and culture together; then you have something pretty special.”
Of course, not everyone believes that team chemistry is important. And, many feel that the best team chemistry is winning.
Related, I do believe that baseball is very unique because it is a team game that depends on individual success. The pitcher is on his own at the mound. The batter is by himself at the plate. And, when the ball approaches the fielder, it’s up to him to catch and throw it.
That said, however, I do believe in clubhouse/dugout culture and atmosphere. And, it’s easy to get your job done when you feel comfortable and part of a team as opposed to feeling alone in a hostile environment. But, that’s me.
What do you think?